Saturday, January 29, 2005

Funny Thing, Humour

When I saw that Rodney Marsh had been sacked from Sky TV for making a joke about the tsunami, I thought 'fair enough' but also had a childish wish to hear the actual joke. Simon Hoggart kindly reproduced it in the Guardian today. You need to know that the 'Toon Army' is the nickname for Newcastle United supporters. David Beckham, the joke goes, didn't want to play for Newcastle because he'd seen what the Toon Army did to Asia.

So it wasn't a joke about the tsunami at all. It was a joke about David Beckham, one of dozens based on his supposed stupidity. Of course it was foolish to tell it on air because any mention of the tsunami in a humorous context was likely to upset some people. But in no way does the joke make fun of the disaster or the people killed. As Hoggart says, an apology for unintentionally upsetting anyone should have been enough.

Hoggart also says the joke isn't funny. Well it's no less and no more funny than any other joke based on a pun and since I like puns it made me smile. And St David has now to some extent taken these jokes based on stupidity away from the Irish, Essex girls and many other ethnic and social groups. To his great credit, he enjoys and tells them himself. He's also quite happy to be a gay icon. Those last two facts suggest to me that he's not as stupid as people suggest.
And if he is, so what? If Beckham were the subject of my fantasies, which he's not, I don't think that after-sex chat about the Special Theory of Relativity would feature very prominently. Equally, I have difficulty imagining Victoria re-arranging the duvet and saying "David, the space-time continuum, what's that all about then?"


Until now I've resisted the temptation to state my reservations about the comedy Little Britain from fear of people shouting "Lighten up! It's only a comedy."
But yesterday there was a landmark court case under the new legislation banning homophobic harassment in the workplace. (Relax, it's still legal to shout 'queer' at someone in the street). One of the admittedly less serious pieces of evidence in the case was that the employee had been nicknamed 'Sebastian' after the Downing Street aide in Little Britain who lusts after the Prime Minister.
I enjoy the Sebastian sketches. I've watched nearly every episode of Little Britain and it takes me back to the Dick Emery Shows of my childhood. Because 'cutting edge' it certainly isn't. The only sketches that pushed the boundaries slightly were the ones about the young man with a fetish for very old ladies who fancied his mate's grandmother. They made you laugh but feel rather uncomfortable at the same time and comedy should do that occasionally.
The problem with 'Sebastian' and the even more popular 'Only Gay In The Village' is that they are presenting a particular stereotype of gay men to a new generation as forcefully as Dick Emery did 30 years ago with his "Hello, Honky-Tonk" character. Just typing that last phrase made me laugh again, so don't accuse me of being po-faced about all this.
The irony is that, unlike the case of Dick Emery, these gay characters are being presented by one gay man (Matt Lucas) and one bisexual man (David Walliams - his description, not mine).

The 'Only Gay In The Village' character is, like all good comedy, based on truth. Some gay men, lacking any other defining characteristics, make their sexuality not just the most important thing in their own lives but the dominant image they present to the world - in Daffyd's case with a mixture of flamboyance and paranoia. A good subject for one sketch but, as with so much in Little Britain, the point has been hammered home remorselessly for two series.

The show is hugely popular with children. If you asked them to name a gay person on television most of them (and quite a few adults) would say 'The Only Gay In The Village.' I doubt that many would say Evan Davis, the BBC Economics Editor. This raises the question of how gay men are portrayed on television, too big a topic for one post, but it strikes me that little has changed in my lifetime. Certainly not when compared to the portrayal of black people.
Shows like 'Mind Your Language' or 'The Black and White Minstrel Show' would never be screened today.
My generation of gay children grew up puzzled and confused that the only image of gay men we saw on the box were people like Kenneth Williams. We didn't know that the Panorama presenter James Mossman was gay, nor for that matter Gilbert Harding although the latter would have been a rather scary role model. Today, those who are gay (or thought to be) will be called 'Sebastian' at work and 'Daffyd' in the school playground. And young children will believe that all gay men walk around in fluorescent, multi-coloured, body-hugging lycra.

So what's the answer? I haven't got one. I'm opposed to censorship of anything that doesn't actually incite violence and I believe that very few subjects are off-limits for comedy. We'll just have to wait patiently for the day when gay people are no longer the one minority who can be stereotyped and ridiculed on prime time television and when gay performers realise that they have a wider social responsibility than going for the easy laugh. Until then, sit back and enjoy it. Because some of it is actually quite funny.


Breaking News: a Parliamentary candidate for the UK Independence Party has been suspended for saying that the criminally insane should be killed. (See my recent posts on the Holocaust).


At 10:38 AM, Blogger peter said...

Babs my comedy consultant (got me on to both South Park and League of Gentlemen) reckons Little Britain is just a cheap imitation of said League of Gentlemen, and with only one laugh per episode. She said this as I was about to buy the first series on DVD to catch up.

Later, an unkind critic on another website likened me (whom he hasn't met and never will) to "the only gay in the village twenty years down the line". Intriguing.

So I watched one episode, and Babs seemed right. Trying to be LoG, just minus the acting and writing skills. There was even one character a direct rip-off of Pauline and her pens.

The only gay in the village sketch seemed quite facile. He'd organized a gay night in the pub, but then wouldn't let them in when they arrived. Laugh? I nearly started.

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

You make me think I was too kind on Little Britain.
Did you see South Bank Show Awards? Matt & David, who won yet again, were loudly heckled by Ken Russell. Couldn't tell what he was saying - whether he was just drunk or making a constructive criticism.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger peter said...

Amazing. I thought he'd died around the time of The Devils.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Peter, many people at that awards ceremony wished he was dead.
He made some wonderful TV films though early in his career.


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